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Water: It's a necessity of life, but it can also destroy life. Anne Berry plays on this dual nature of water in her novel about the intricacies of family and the redemptive power of love.
The novel centers around four main characters who were all traumatized by a childhood experience with water. The first, Owen, was eight years old when his parents told him to watch his little sister, Sarah, on an outing at the beach. But Owen got distracted, and Sarah drowned. Owen grew up haunted by his own guilt and the loss of his mother's love. He continues to fear the Merfolk, who lurk just under the water's surface. The second character, Catherine, was with her cousin, Roslyn, when the two girls fell through the ice on a pond during Christmas vacation. Both girls were rescued, but Catherine grew up believing that she had nearly caused the death of her beloved cousin. Sean, the third character, grew up in poverty on a farm in Ireland. He endured whippings from his father and condemnation from the villagers when he defied local superstitions by teaching himself to swim in the River Shannon. The fourth character, Naomi, grew up in an orphanage. When she arrived, the priest in charge took away her identity by changing her name to Mara. Naomi endured ten years of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. The house mother often locked her in the dark coal cellar, where she would get covered with grime. Naomi came to worship water for its ability to cleanse her both externally and internally.
The novel opens with the backstories of these characters, then shifts into the present time, when their lives all intersect in London in 1976, the driest, hottest summer in recent history. Owen, Catherine, and Sean are now in their early 20s. Owen has come to London to reinvent himself, and Sean, fancying himself an entrepreneur, has renounced the life of a poor farmer and come in search of some big scheme that will make him rich. Catherine has been in London attending secretarial school, which she hates, at her parents' insistence. Sean and Catherine met and fell into a loveless marriage that seemed convenient to both of them at the time but that quickly lost its luster with the arrival of an unplanned baby. Sean sells cheap tourist goods at a stall in an underground market, and he hires Owen, an out-of-work actor, to help him out. And the alluring Naomi, who is about ten years older than the others, has become Sean's mistress. Sean maintains his wife and daughter in one apartment and Naomi in another, and he tells Owen that he can move into the apartment with Naomi.
Naomi/Mara is at the center of the intersection of these four lives. She is the most badly damaged of the group, and it is around her that the others swirl. Naomi harbors within herself that other little girl, Mara, the grimy prisoner of the coal cellar who wants only to be cleansed and to be loved: "The black is only a seed behind her eyes when it is born—a dot, a speck, no more. But it propagates. A bright jet bead that sends out a million inky shoots to dye every cell in her body. And with this black dawn comes rage, a murderous, unwieldy, uncompromising tidal wave sweeping through her. . . . In her overheated dreams she becomes a mermaid. As she darts through the healing coolness of water, the blackness dissolves to reveal the spangle of her platinum scales" (pp. 121-122). Gradually Mara asserts herself more and more as the temperature climbs and the drought deepens. The novel's dramatic climax occurs just as the first fat drops of rain finally, mercifully, begin to fall.
The Water Children begins with an epigraph that quotes The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley: "Why, wise men of old said that everything on earth had its double in the water; . . . There are land-babies, then why not water-babies?" Kingsley was a minister who wrote the story as a serial in 1862-1863; the book, a Victorian moral fable, was published in its entirety in 1863 and remained popular in England for many years. However, the reader of Berry's novel does not need an extensive knowledge of this background because Berry develops her own symbolism around the Water Child. One of Owen's happy memories, before his mother stopped loving him because of Sarah's death, was of a time when he and his mother built a snowman. When the snowman began to melt, Owen was devastated, but his mother told him that a water child was trapped inside every snowman and the melting was necessary to free him. By the end of the novel the Water Child, "an enchanted silver jitterbug of pure light" (p. 319), has become a symbol for the resilience of the human spirit and the redemption of love.
© 2013 by Mary Daniels Brown
Mary Daniels Brown completed the coursework for a doctorate in English and American literature before shifting gears and receiving her doctorate in psychology from Saybrook University. She regularly writes and blogs about books and reading at Notes in the Margin: http://notesinthemargin.org